Wife of a Spy is the latest film by Japanese craftsman Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He was one of several filmmakers, along with Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata, who matured in their craft during the v-cinema era of the ’90s. Many of these films garnered the label Asia Extreme, which wasn’t particularly accurate in Kurosawa’s case. He made horror and violent gangster films, but his signature was not extremity, but rather a sense of neutrality. His leveling, observing camera renders conversations and violence the same.
Since 2008’s Tokyo Sonata, he has largely left the world of genre filmmaking, but his subsequent films haven’t diluted his style. He still takes the same, semi-objective approach to his subject matter. In Wife of a Spy, that subject is loyalty, specifically personal versus national loyalty.
Yu Aoi plays Satoko, a happy housewife in 1940 who deeply loves her husband, Yusaku. He is an importer and amateur filmmaker, who takes a trip to Manchuria with his nephew Fumio. He’s gone longer than he was supposed to be, and when he gets back, things begin to change. Fumio leaves his firm and goes off into the country to write about his experience in Manchuria. And an old friend of Satoko’s, Taiji, a member of the military police, questions her about her husband’s trip. Yusaku arrived with a woman, he says, and has applied for a passport for himself and the woman to leave Japan. And that woman had also been recently murdered.
Satoko visits Fumio, and finds him changed. He says he’s being watched by the police, but has a package to be delivered to Yusaku. As her trust in her husband erodes, she eventually looks at the package, and finds out her husband is a spy. The package contains films and documents about military medical experiments being conducted on the citizens of Manchuria. Yusaku’s conscience wouldn’t allow him to stand by and do nothing, so he plans to get the documents and film he shot to the Allies, at any cost to himself… and to Satoko.
This is the outline of a spy thriller, but Wife of a Spy takes a thriller plot, but not really its form. There are very few scenes of pure suspense, but rather a suffused atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a very precise filmmaker, who conveys meanings through deliberate compositions and camera movements. There are no pulse pounding action sequences in Wife of a Spy. Kurosawa maintains an almost neutral, observing tone which has the effect of leveling scenes. He films a conversation with the same style and techniques as a nightmare sequence, which gives the latter a deeper sense of unsettling reality.
It’s a fascinating style of filmmaking, and it rewards deep attention. What it does not do is thrill. There are a couple of scenes of heightened emotion in Wife of a Spy, and a couple of frightening sequences. But its pace is steady (the unkind would say plodding.) The story, while never confusing, unfolds deliberately and doesn’t have the jolts of a spy thriller.
Some reviews have compared it to a Hitchcock thriller, and I find that comparison bizarre. Hitchcock was completely attuned to the manipulation of his audience, and made entertainments with barbs and subtle subversions. Kurosawa’s films are entertaining (he’s one of my personal favorite filmmakers) but they don’t envelop the audience. You have to find your own way into the film. They can mesmerize, but only ever on their own terms.
One of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s particular skills is finding just the right actors, and Yu Aoi is absolutely pitch perfect as Satoko. She has the beauty of a ’40s Japanese actress, and fits into the meticulously recreated period dress and settings perfectly. She has perfect poise that is ever so slightly upset by learning terrible things: either that her husband is accused of doing, or that might happen to her if the military police need to get hold of her.
The scene where she and her husband confront each other is perfect – both break their traditional Japanese reserve just enough, without ever sacrificing the dignity that reserve it designed to protect. Yusaku is played by Issey Takahashi who, among other roles, was one of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1. He exudes a short of unshakeable confidence, both as a benign businessman who can get along with the rising fascist Japanese government then as a man of conscience who decidedly cannot.
Wife of a Spy is a beautiful example of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s filmmaking, but he does not go out of his way to make beautiful films. He has a preference for the slightly dilapidated, for run-down buildings and places past their prime. Along with the neutrality of his viewpoint, he tends to favor a neutral color pallet. There is in his films, deliberately, very little “pop”, in terms of color or flash. He invites, rather than demands attention. If you don’t want to invest in his films, they’ll happily move on without you.
To a casual viewer, this can easily register as “boring.” And Wife of a Spy needs to be attended too to be understood. There’s a long sequence near the middle of the film entirely devoted to Satoko and Yusaku buying jewelry and watches to have something to sell, in case they leave the country. It takes its bloody time, and doesn’t have clever dialogue or much in the way of intrigue… until, as they walk through the marketplace, in the foreground a man in a hat lingers for a moment, who might be watching them. It creates an unsettling sensation. This is the strength of Wife of a Spy, and of Kurosawa’s cinema, where the attentive viewer can have a scene upended by a detail that might be missed. It’s not a movie for everyone. But it is a brilliant exemplar of one of the great contemporary filmmaker’s art.
Wife of a Spy has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Bonus material includes a making of featurette, “The Making of Wife of a Spy” (53 mins), which includes behind the scenes footage and interviews for the making of the film. There’s also a trailer for the film.